The four best books published in 2008 that I’ve come across are Nam Le’s The Boat (Knopf), Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, and Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day (all three Houghton Mifflin).
The Boat hasn’t done badly for praise — it’s been raved about by just about everyone who’s read it. Consisting of seven short stories ranging from the autobiographical to the intensely imagined, the book’s overwhelming quality is strength. This is tough, intense, highly-wrought writing without a shadow of whimsicality. Nam Le was born in Vietnam but brought up in Australia, studied in the US and has just accepted a creative-writing professorship in the UK. What makes the book so remarkable is its combination of high literary aspiration with an intensity that just about everyone will respond to.
Paul Theroux bounced back in 2008 with a set of three novellas and yet another travel book. The Elephanta Suite just happened to take its title from the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai which was to be the focus of the terrorist attack later in the year. None of the stories actually takes place there except fleetingly, however. Instead, they’re three hilarious and frightening evocations of modern India — Theroux getting his own back on a place he doesn’t like. But as fiction they’re exceptionally compelling, brilliantly crafted and written in fire.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star saw Theroux revisiting many of the locations he first described in The Great Railway Bazaar. He once again travels mostly by rail, lambasting and receiving homage as he goes. He likes Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand best, and savages Singapore, along with Turkmenistan and Myanmar (or at least the governments of all three places). He soaks in a hot spring on the northern tip of Hokkaido and visits a former Gulag prison in Russia. You almost feel there’s no point in taking any more trips yourself — Theroux has done them all for you, and had more interesting thoughts en route than you’ll ever manage.
Evening is the Whole Day is a fine debut novel by a young Malaysian. I may have been excessively enthusiastic in comparing her book in my original review with Middlemarch, but the point is that it has the same kind of qualities. Whole swathes of history are subsumed in the life of a single family.